Sunday April 22nd, 2018
So this was it. The day was finally here. 18 weeks of miles and smiles, personal bests, terrific ‘Beasts’ and torrid weather, countless laps of my local park, sometimes in total darkness. Somehow, I’d evaded any potential injury issues despite a near constant 18 months of running since December 2016. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but by and large, I could say I’d had my best ever preparation for a marathon.
I woke up just prior to my 6am alarm in a Peckham AirBnB. The kit was already arranged, the luggage 95% packed and ready to go, the clear bag stickered and loaded with everything for the luggage lorries. The sun was up, and it was beaming. The distinctive London morning air was gently breezing in through the windows of the flat. I looked myself in the mirror. Was today the day I would call myself a sub-3 marathoner?
For the last couple of days I’d been stationed in London with my wife, Laura, taking her through a bit of the marathon experience with me, and enjoying some of its rich sights and culture. First it was the Expo, of course, to collect my race number, which we whizzed around in about an hour, the best part being the treadmill challenge where you can run at course record pace for 400 metres. I succeeded at this and won a nice Abbott snood for my troubles. We had a night at the theatre that evening, bagging front row seats for The Woman in Black, and spent time in Greenwich Park the following afternoon, taking in the Royal Observatory and Planetarium. I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing approach to the big day, and certainly from this aspect my mind was perfectly calmed, even positioned in the heart of the marathon’s red start area
The sun was shining over London from very early on and it didn’t take long for the temperature to warm up. I needed to get from Peckham to Greenwich via Lewisham DLR, and then onto Maze Hill for the green start zone. I didn’t exactly help myself that morning when, after seeing a fellow entrant get off at a stop I wasn’t expecting, I panicked and got off the bus at the next stop, thinking I’d somehow got on the wrong bus. It turned out I was on the right bus all along, and not making it any easier for Laura, who had set off with me in order to reach Embankment early. The next bus arrived two minutes later and took us to Lewisham. From thereon it was smooth sailing, saying my byes to Laura at Greenwich Station, before heading to the platform for Maze Hill.
It all seemed familiar again now. It hadn’t changed one bit from when I last saw it two years ago. The long, winding walk from Maze Hill Station, its streets signposted with large arrows to the assembly point at Maze Hill Park. The one change from London 2016 was a queue to get into the assembly area for baggage checks. There were a few grumbles in the queue but you can’t blame them for putting on an extra layer of security at a major event. It didn’t take very long to get through anyway, and before long I was organised, changed into my running shades (actually a cheap pair of Primark sunglasses), away for a quick pre-race pitstop at the urinals, and then I could relax and soak up the atmosphere. My eyes scanned for another Halifax Harriers vest, but alas mine is not the only club featuring sky blue as its main colour. I did finally meet Alan, a fellow Running the World member, himself an experienced marathoner, my bright orange visor clearly doing its job of standing me out to people I’d asked to look out for me! Having talked a few things about running and the upcoming race, Alan went to his pen while I carried out my warm up, going for a quick jog in and around the masses before finally assembling for the start.
I ended up ensconced in the front pen, using what narrow space I had to prepare breathing exercises, a few back twists and a series of squats. On the big screen to our left, the Queen, starting the race from Windsor Castle. The horns sounded, and twenty seconds later, the Garmin was activated, timing mats crossed, and into my stride. London Marathon 2018 was underway!
The first half of my race went pretty much to plan. I was running mostly inside my planned 6:40 mile pace, taking advantage of downhills for extra pace. Mile 3 was a 6:19, which opened up a nice gap on my target. I wasn’t too concerned about going too hard here – I’d pushed it along gently – and I saved a little bit on the hill climbs. A collision between two runners happened behind me, which I wasn’t caught up in. I don’t think it was anything I did – I was moving forwards in a straight line, I felt genuinely relieved to have just escaped getting clipped in the fall. That incident stood out for me as a euphemism for what was to come.
Cutty Sark was predictably mental, a wall of noise encircling the runners as they ran past the great galleon. All in all, the near miss aside, it was a reasonably uneventful I kept at or inside my pace until mile 11, where I posted two slightly slower miles (6:55 and 7:00) to manage my pace. I got a great cheer out of shouting ‘let’s hear it Rotherhithe!’, and it was great picking out the Yorkshire flags in the crowd. The showers were a great relief, none more so than the great one delivered by London Fire Brigade shortly after the first shower section. Picking up the pace again heading on to Tower Bridge, an iconic landmark that I wish every runner could experience once, I crossed halfway in 1:28:19, quicker than my 2016 first half and well on course for the sub-3 I wanted.
Over the course of that first half I’d done no end of enforcing the organisers’ ‘Drink, Douse, Drain, Drop’ policy – drink what you need to, douse yourself with it, drain the rest onto the road, and drop the empty contents at the side of the road. I was already feeling a little warm at 3 miles but the water cooled me down. but it was getting more and more uncomfortable, seemingly taking a shower every mile just to keep cool, at times removing my visor just to catch a slight breeze against my forehead.
With the heat bearing down with ever more intensity, I realised quickly I was struggling to maintain my effort. Deciding that I wasn’t coping very well any more, feeling a little more unsure on my feet, I decided to not chase after the sub-3 hour time. I was still on course at this time, but I was struggling to keep sufficiently cool and at mile 15, that was to be it. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I knew the priority now had to be simply to get to the finish. The big goal was slipping away. I cantered at around 8 minute mile pace up to mile 18 but then it got torrid. I suddenly I didn’t have the power to generate any real pace, similar to how I’ve occasionally felt on a long hilly run when I’ve had one hill too many. The quads just weren’t having it. I can’t explain that in any other way than my effort versus the intensity of the day.
I kept to my race nutrition plan of taking the gels at 1:35, 1:55 and 2:15, but they weren’t re-energising me at all. The sun and my previous effort had sapped my capability to run at a sufficiently fast pace and from then on it was a battle against the weather conditions. I switched to run/walking, by walking the start of every mile for about 30 seconds before continuing, counting using my fingers, and not my watch, which have going under one of the underpasses, I realised wasn’t of much use anymore. And with my time goal out of the window, and with it my best hope of ever getting into London again, I didn’t pay too much attention to the watch, other than to notice how much my pace declined, and now tried to focus instead on simply finishing the race.
By mile 20, I strongly considered pulling out. I’ve never DNF’d and I’m not one for quitting. Caffeine abstinence not included. But I was glancing more at medical staff at points on the course, I’d seen one or two stretchers being wheeled about (thankfully not with anybody on them, but still), and I didn’t feel too steady between water/shower points. I’d also nearly vomited once or twice. There’s only so much sweet stuff one can take. Malt loaf is stodgy, Chia Charge crumbly, and gels, sweets energy drinks, even oranges – what I would have given now for a sausage roll! But I knew Laura, my wife, would be further up the course at Embankment. I opted to continue, continuing with the run/walk strategy.
The crowd support was simply incredible. People willing me on to keep going, not to give up, cheering me by my club name, and it kept me going. A marshal even gave me their water at one point, which was a brilliant gesture I’m very thankful for. I kept hold of that water for a good half a mile or so.
I finally found Laura up at Embankment, having spent the last two or three miles staying to and scanning the right hand side of the course. Laura was going to get a good photo of me but I ambushed her. I was so happy to see her. With no time to chase, the laser focus had gone, and I gave her a massive hug, nearly tripping over the roadside barrier in the process. Mile 24 was a 13:47, according to my watch. That could have been due to the second underpass playing havoc with my watch, but I definitely walked a few times that mile. Onwards I went, and beyond mile 25, one of my club mates, Andy, caught up with me. We’d been talking about the marathon on Tuesday night. At this point I hadn’t recognised him, not even by his voice. To be fair, he was wearing bright shades and I wasn’t in the best state. He kept me going for another half a mile with a bit more pace, until we approached 600 metres from the finish, where I couldn’t keep up and had to let him go ahead while I took one last walk.
Onwards I went, and finally the finishing straight down the Mall. I raised my arms with a shrug as if to say ‘well, that didn’t exactly go to plan’, and crossed the line, finishing London for a second time. It was over. 3:22:59
I was asked by a female volunteer if I was OK. I said ‘I can’t have any more sugar’. I was told there was water in the goody bags. I received my medal, walked straight past the Marathon Foto picture stands – I was in no mood, or state, for an expensive medal photo – staggered a bit further, got in line for my finisher t-shirt and goody bag, and went immediately for the water, gradually sipping it as I walked with Andy for a bit to find my bag from the assorted baggage lorries. I wasn’t angry, nor disappointed I finished precisely 23 minutes down on my target. Nor disenfranchised. I just didn’t feel right. Not really OK. I felt physically and mentally broken.
I contemplated seeing a physio. Or specifically, a doctor.
I contacted Laura to see where she was and it seemed she was on her way. After getting off the phone, two German runners approached me asking me to take a photo for them. I gladly obliged – there’s a nice synchronicity to this I’ll further elaborate on soon – but then decided to contact Laura again as I unsteadily proceeded towards Horseguards Parade. Unfortunately, Laura seemed unsure of her exact whereabouts, although nearby, and network traffic meant she wasn’t able to get any pictures to show me her position. She wasn’t too familiar with the landmarks either. I tried to guide her to the arches making up Admiralty Arch near Charing Cross, but in the meantime I felt more and more delirious, and leaning towards seeing a doctor. In the end, Laura confirmed she was near the Household Cavalry, so I exited onto Whitehall to find her. Eventually we reunited, but I was getting more delirious, deciding I wanted a cold can of Coca Cola. I got one, along with a chicken and bacon sandwich from Pret-A-Manger I couldn’t stomach.
We then headed for the underground to King’s Cross via Piccadilly. From Piccadilly it was a nightmare. Two other runners previously had remarked how hot I was and one said I looked pale, but none of this registered. I rode the Piccadilly to King’s Cross journey in extreme discomfort. It was like riding in an oven. I was sweating buckets, feeling less in control. Laura by this point was finding me insufferable, and I knew I was – I was finding myself insufferable. The tube doors finally opened at King’s Cross, where I headed for the nearest bench to finally drink the cola. My appetite for food went as far as one tiny bite of the sandwich. As we went upstairs, things alleviated slightly, and having arrived for our train quite early, a Calippo lolly, of all things, finally brought me back round and restored my appetite, and we had a safe journey home.
Yep. I should have seen a doctor.
Now, where were we. Oh yes. The marathon. Well, my official race photos don’t show it, but as I crossed the line I’m fairly sure I lifted my hands and shrugged my shoulders as if to say ‘well, that didn’t quite go to plan’. The weather had dealt everyone a bad hand – chances are if you were from the UK and you ran London 2018, you would have done at least a week of your training in the snow. Of course it was unlikely we would get such bad conditions in April. No, we got a slightly extreme opposite. Very little time to acclimatise to running in hot weather, all you can do is prepare, and as the organisers said, reduce your expectations of your finishing time. Basically, all that training for a sub – 3 marathon, only to be told that it probably isn’t going to happen today. It didn’t stop me trying. Had I sustained my effort from the first 5K, my predicted time was a 2:53. That would have been incredible, but everyone knows a marathon isn’t decided in the first 5K of a race. The sensible thing to do would have been to judge my pace a little better and save a bit more of my effort, but the weather played a big part in that – when I ran marathon pace up to mile 20 in training, I ought to feel confident in my ability to last the distance, and without question I did on race day. That training peak was done in much colder weather, however. The 10K race I ran in London last summer wasn’t even this warm. As a result, my race paid the price. I’ve never had to suffer for so long during a marathon. If disaster hits, it’s usually much closer to the end.
I’m not disappointed in my result because I took it into my own hands not to pursue the sub-3 beyond mile 15. I simply wanted to get to the end and accepted it wasn’t going to happen. I did accept I was going to try despite the organisers’ advice, and I did keep a little something in reserve near Tower Bridge, but ultimately it was either my brain or my body that would influence the outcome, and I let my brain choose first. I did have one ‘head-in-hands’ moment some time after crossing the finish, but this was probably the delirium and confusion at trying to locate Laura, and not genuine disappointment.
Post- race, I should have sought assistance sooner, or indeed just actually sought assistance. My goody bag contained stuff that would have brought me round, like salty protein bars, and energy drink with electrolytes. I paid a bit of a price for not bringing or purchasing hydration tablets – they’ve got me out of a haze many a time. Next time, I need to take better care of myself post race, and maybe someone to stop me if they can see I’m not right or myself at all. Yet I know I’m not the only one who suffered out there – so many struggled with the conditions, and tragically one person, Matt Campbell, a talented chef, raising money for The Brathay Trust, a charity that works with vulnerable young people, died out on the course. It really does put things into context. Safety and wellbeing is paramount in an event as gruelling and indeed brutal as it was today. I had a horrible feeling it would claim somebody, but to hear it actually confirmed is dreadful news. That the running community and general public have responded with such generosity and togetherness, boosting Matt’s JustGiving page to well over £300,000 (and rising further), and running 3.7 miles to ‘complete’ Matt’s marathon, embodies the ‘Spirit of London’ way beyond the M25.
A great number of family, friends and colleagues have congratulated me on a great time and for completing the race. While I will differ personally on what I will regard as ‘a great time’, I still got around the course respectfully, even if I did take nearly two hours to complete the second half of the race. Its wonderful to receive such support, particularly from those who don’t run – it’s positive to have such an effect just from my efforts alone, and on this occasion the time doesn’t really mean much at all. The actual completion of the marathon does. And it makes it all the more worthwhile for not giving up and finishing the race.
London is behind me now. With no Good For Age time, I’m left with the general ballot, my running club’s mini ballot, or the charity route. I’m not likely to apply at all. I’ve run London twice and I feel incredibly privileged to have been in a position to guarantee my entry twice in a three year period. Its time somebody who hasn’t run before – and by that I mean the runners who apply time and time again just to get a ‘sorry’ magazine, or sometimes a rejection email. They should have the chance to run London at least once. It remains pretty much one of the best marathons in this country for organisation and atmosphere. Its why 350,000 people per year apply. I will chase my targets at other marathons, and will consider carefully where I will next attempt a sub-3 time. Because that part of me hasn’t gone away, and it would be churlish to give up on that goal through one rough day in the office, so to speak.
For now it’s a period of recovery, easing back into running and then preparing for my next big challenge. Which will be a half marathon. In Munich, Germany. In the height of the European summer. Crikey…
The ballot for the 2019 London Marathon is now open (until Friday May 4th, 5:00pm)
Find me on the Finish Line camera at 3:23:19 over on BBC iPlayer (if you can access it)